international analysis and commentary

Rethinking the Iranian nuclear issue


The nuclear question is perceived by a wide majority of Iranians as being a national, not a regime issue. One symptomatic example: opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a certain stage, as being “too soft” in nuclear negotiations.

One can address the Iranian nuclear question with a focus on capabilities, but this approach has proved to be far from objective and instead very controversial – just look at the different estimates on the advancement of Iranian nuclear capabilities. Another approach refers to Iranian intentions, an even less objective field in which interpretations can go from the apocalyptic (they intend to build nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel) to the naïve (they will never build a bomb because Allah would not approve, and there is also, perhaps, a fatwa stating that). I would prefer to use, as a criterion, neither Iranian capabilities nor Iranian intentions, but rather the interests of the Iranian regime, which is less difficult to assess than either capabilities or intentions.

The first interest of the Iranian regime is survival. There is a purely domestic element to regime survival: the quest for nuclear power is one of the few themes on which it can gather consensus and popularity. And there is a strategic dimension: Iran watched as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was attacked precisely because he did not have nuclear weapons, while North Korea’s regime is still standing because it may already have a nuclear capability. Therefore it makes sense to think of nuclear weapons as a powerful deterrent.

After all, keeping the nuclear issue alive has already produced a very positive result for the regime: a recognition, though reluctant, on the part of both the US and Europe, that Iran is a necessary interlocutor. Making troubles and raising fears has been an effective way to avoid being ignored.

Sanctions will not bring Iran to its knees, nor will they convince it to give up the nuclear card. Yet, sanctions have increased the cost of intransigence, and might eventually strengthen those within the regime who are in favor of a less intransigent posture – which in turn might influence Iran’s negotiating stance. It is clear, however, that sanctions make sense only in the perspective of an agreement that is not an international diktat, but recognizes some of the Iranian demands. The alternative is to see sanctions as simply an intermediate step leading to military action.

What could be the bottom line for the Iranian regime? One could suggest a combination of three necessary ingredients.

First, an explicit renunciation of regime change as the objective of international action. We should not forget that revolutionary Iran, like the Castro regime in Cuba, has survived – in rather good shape – decades of regime change wishful thinking. To the contrary, the West’s anti-regime-change approach to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was eventually not sufficient to save it from its own people. The obvious lesson to draw is that the Iranian regime will not fall because we so wish. With all due differences, George Kennan’s approach to the Soviet Union remains valid well beyond the Cold War, in the sense that  regime change will come about by a combination of deterrence plus containment (which are much more effective and realistic tactics than “rollback”), combined with the effect of our soft power and the fact that repression cannot make up indefinitely for the loss of political legitimacy. Another experience that may prove relevant is that of Maoist China, which (as an accomplished nuclear power) wanted to be recognized, not loved. Once it achieved that goal, its policies became less erratic and its domestic evolution also changed.

The second ingredient of a possible deal is to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment, which would be combined with monitoring and inspection under the “additional protocol”, and possibly under further special measures. The key goal should be to ensure that there is no parallel or sequential military nuclear program. Let us not forget that until 2004-2005 Iran was ready to discuss a combination of limited enrichment (for research and development purposes) and production of nuclear fuel for peaceful uses by an international consortium. At that stage the American and European position was “zero centrifuges”, even in the presence of the additional protocol. Today Iran’s centrifuges are in the hundreds, but still we could work out a formula that allows a limited Iranian right to enrichment. This is crucial, as no political group in Iran, reformist or otherwise, would accept the suspension of uranium enrichment. 

The final ingredient of a deal that would meet the basic preconditions for the Iranian regime is to broaden the negotiating platform: the nuclear issue is of course very important, but diplomatic history suggests that it is very difficult to negotiate on a single issue. Widening the picture might be helpful: regional issues – especially economic concessions – were originally included in the first initiative by the EU3, but then somehow faded.

We must acknowledge that even a negotiating approach based on the above-mentioned elements might not persuade Tehran to reach a deal in good faith – and recent rhetoric is far from encouraging.

Yet, at least two factors could be significant in facilitating, over time, a less intransigent position. Firstly, the economic situation: while not disastrous, it is growingly problematic for the regime (lack of international investment and technology transfers in the oil and gas sector is probably the most damaging aspect of current sanctions, and the least easy to bypass). Secondly, there is the political concern caused by the post-Tunisia and post-Egypt wave of popular protest. The regime, though still capable of resisting through the sheer force and solidity of its repressive instruments, would like to be able to show that Iran is becoming “a normal country” and not a pariah among nations – an important aspiration for a proud and nationalistic people. In order to pursue this priority, Tehran might be willing to pay a price in terms of reduced intransigence on the nuclear issue (short, however, of the zero enrichment option). A lot will depend on the power struggle now underway between the Supreme Leader and the President. But this is not a reason to stick to a losing strategy, rather than challenge the Iranian regime with some innovative thinking and more creative diplomacy.


On June 9 a piece on how to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, written by six former ambassadors to Iran from European countries (including Roberto Tsocano), was published in nine newspapers from different countries. Read the article >>